French Baguette: How A Humble Stick of Bread Became a Cultural Icon | History Hit

French Baguette: How A Humble Stick of Bread Became a Cultural Icon

Baguettes in Paris
Image Credit: Nick Thweatt, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of internationally beloved French cuisine is one of the most iconic types of bread in the world: the baguette. As well as being a delicious and frequently-enjoyed dietary staple across the country, baguettes also enjoy a legendary cultural status, enshrined in quotes such as Marie Antoinette’s (dubiously authentic) ‘let them eat cake’ in response to being told that the peasants had no bread to eat. Equally, Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is famously arrested and imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread.

The history of the baguette is equally fascinating, and has long been associated as a veritable symbol of the French people and their struggle for liberté, égalité, fraternité. The origin of the baguette, however, shrouded in myth and mystery.

So where did it come from?

Bread has always been popular in France

Until around 1800, French peasants – who made up the vast majority of the population – ate bread made from wheat, rye or buckwheat. Fillers such as sawdust, hay, dirt and even dung were used to make the bread go further.

Bread was a diet staple, since it made up the majority of a peasant’s daily intake. An adult could eat as much as two or three pounds of bread a day. Since bread was such a staple, grain riots as a result of shortages or price hikes were extremely common right up until the French Revolution, and sometimes included entire regions.

It may have been invented by an Austrian

Nobody is entirely sure who invented the modern-day baguette. However, it has been suggested that the man who invented the croissant, a Viennese officer-turned-baker named August Zang, who also introduced the city to pain viennois and the croissant.

It is said that Zang facilitated the invention of the baguette by installing France’s first steam oven in Paris in 1839. The steam oven made it possible to bake loaves with a crisp crust and fluffy centre, because the steam allowed the crust to expand.

There are many myths associated with its invention

One legend has it that the baguette’s invention was orchestrated by Napoleon Bonaparte, who decreed that bread should be made in long, thin sticks to best fit in soldiers’ pockets.

Napoléon in his coronation robes by François Gérard, c. 1805

Image Credit: François Gérard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another popular myth states that when work began on the Paris Metro in 1898, labourers were brought from across France to work on the project. However, owing to violent arguments between the different groups of men, bakers were asked to create a bread that could be torn, rather than cut, so that knives – and their potential for violence – could be outlawed.

In the 1920s, a law was passed that forbade bakers from doing any work before 4am. Since the long, thin baguette was the only bread that bakers could prepare in time for breakfast, it became increasingly popular.

They were originally up to 6 foot long

Wide loaves were eaten in France since the time of Louis XIV, and long, thin ones were consumed since the mid-18th century. The increasing availability of cheap wheat from the 19th century onwards meant that white bread was no longer exclusively reserved for the rich. As a result, some long breads were up to six feet long.

Though long, thin breads had been around before, they were only referred to as baguettes from 1920 onwards. The word derives from the Latin ‘baculum‘, which evolved into ‘baccheto‘ in Italian, meaning ‘staff’ or ‘stick’.

The French Revolution was possibly intensified by the baguette

The riots that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, which thus contributed to the beginning of the French Revolution, started as a search for both arms and grains. Parisian peasants correctly suspected that grain had been hoarded in anticipation of higher prices, so took to the streets in protest.

Storming of the Bastille

Image Credit: Unidentified painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was claimed that peasants further rioted at the sight of nobility eating long white bread sticks, much like baguettes, while they starved. As a result, anxieties around grain were quickly reflected in the new government’s behaviour, since they were quick to respond to accusations of price hiking or grain hoarding. In essence, demand for bread intensified the already radical revolution.

In 1793, the post-Revolution government decreed: ‘Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. There will no longer be a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor. All bakers will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality.’

There are laws about how they should appear and be made

In the decades after the baguette was invented, wheat became cheaper and baguettes became a common sight. Owing to their sometimes extraordinary length, a law in 1920 decreed that baguettes should weigh a minimum of 80g and a maximum length of 40cm.

The baguette is traditionally made with a light, yeasty dough which is kneaded and folded, then has the surface slashed before being baked in an oven with baguette-shaped moulds. In addition, baguettes can only be made with flour, salt, water and yeast, and must be between 65cm and 1 metre long. In addition, it must be baked on the premises where it is sold.

Today, baguette-inspired breads such as a thinner, tube-shaped loaf called the flûte and an even thinner version called a ficelle are popular, while a shorter, stubbier version of the baguette is known as the baton.

The Capetians of France and the Angevins of England waged war, made peace, and intermarried. The lands under English control once reached to within a few miles of Paris, and those ruled by the French, at their peak, crossed the Channel and encompassed London itself.
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Lucy Davidson